Surveyor's Footsteps: Low Rates Undermine Entire Profession
When land surveyors cut their rates to ridiculously low levels, they make it difficult for good professionals to make a living
We are very accustomed to realtors who charge six percent of the sale price of the property they are handling. Could land surveyors find a similar multiplier when marking the property of a buyer?
The changes in technology offer us new ways to go into debt every year. When I bought my first robot, it was only a few months before the reflectorless option was changed to offer me a longer shot and, in turn, I paid for an upgrade. We went from three-man crews, to two-person crews, down to one person. Did you ever ask, “Where did that profit go?” There was a brief flourish of income, but then competition took it away.
I believe that developers profit from our practice of competing against each other. We bought the technology and took work from other surveyors by underbidding them, just so the developer could save money. Has a developer ever thanked you for giving him a better bottom line? Did a developer ever offer to compensate you for the new software, hardware and firmware?
Am I suggesting we stop buying technology? Absolutely not. What I am saying is that to attract young people into the profession of land surveying, we need to raise our rates enough to have profits for ourselves, and enough left over to pay crews and office personnel more. I do not believe we properly pass on the expense or keep the profits created by the technology we purchase.
Remember those advertisements telling us we could cut our time in half? When you did save time, did you charge the same amount and actually take advantage of YOUR savings, or did you bid lower to get the work and thereby give away the profit? Currently, I have seen bids that are astoundingly low.
A few months ago, I was slow in preparing a bid to create a topographic survey plan of a 0.75-acre property. The developer for whom I have worked in the past called me asking about the proposal, and I expressed I was busy but would write it that night. He asked if I thought it would be $800 or less. I said, “No, it would be $1,600 or more.” Apparently, his partner had a surveyor who would do the work for $800. I was shocked, and told him the guy could double his price and probably still get the job. He asked me to not tell the surveyor that until he was done the work. That land surveyor sure saved the builder $800 or more. Do you think the builder will let him know?
Over the years, I have seen some surveyors underbidding in a race to the bottom. Along the way, we embraced new technology, and possibly some gave it away. People call for a quote to survey their property and expect land surveyors to bid like painters, plumbers and carpenters.
Unfortunately for land surveyors, there are many ways of tricking the public. Clients think they are getting one thing, but don’t know it is another. Such is the case with a topographic survey plan a landscape architect asked me to look at and submit a bid for the work. She expressed that something looked wrong about the plan her client recently had prepared. The client thought he had a plan of survey including topography. In my opinion, it was something very different.
First, the plan was titled “Existing Conditions Plan.” What does that mean? I will interpret that particular plan for you…
A land surveyor went into the field and located something in the way of two property corners and tied them into state plane coordinates. That allowed the person to rotate the deed to true north, and then take the free LiDAR contours available from the Penn State site and put them on the plan along with the edge of the driveway. There were monuments called to exist, which I believe were taken from the deed. Interestingly, if you take the tape and transit survey from the 1980s, and rotate to true north, all the resulting angles and distances were exactly as on the new plan.
I know the surveyor who performed that original old survey and, although he was accurate, he was not exact to GPS or total station locations. What’s more, the entire site was wooded, with tall mature trees, middle growth and undergrowth. The site was also steep. Some might call that new plan “a cartoon.” Did the owners get the topographic survey plan they thought they were getting? The architect did not think so, but could not explain why the plan looked bad. No, what they had was an “Existing Conditions Plan.”
I want to be sure to express that when a plan set has a sheet called “Existing Conditions Plan,” there is generally another plan in the set that has specific reliable certified information that relates to the boundary work performed. In this area, that sheet might be called “Title Plan” and would represent a true plan of survey. Other sheets in that set could include “Demolition Plan,” “Erosion and Sedimentation Plan” or “Drainage Areas Plan.” In the case of a plan set, this sheet titled “Existing Conditions Plan” is not what I am referring to.
Perhaps this was clever business management? The surveyor might have later charged the client much more. I know a land surveyor who 10 years ago expressed that he stopped doing small lot surveys since they always ended up $1,100 or more. The client was always upset, so why do those surveys? There are surveyors in this area surveying lots for $400 thanks to Internet sites that direct people to bargain prices. Sadly, those surveyors could double their prices and still be $300 low. They gave away more than they charged. Did the cheapskate homeowner thank them for the $700 left on the client’s table? I do not believe surveys in my area can be properly done for such a low price.
Getting back to the “Existing Conditions Plan,” I was pressed by the architect to prepare a bid. I was only going to prepare a topographic survey plan for half the site at $2,200, but I was going to actually do boundary work for the whole site and locate the drive, road, right of way and contours, as well as show zoning criteria, steep slopes and trees – all of which the architect routinely wanted to see. In a subsequent phone conversation, the architect told me he saw the bid from the other surveyor and it was in the $300 range. Wow! This surveyor had produced a non-topographic survey and left $1,800 on the client’s table. I do not think that lot owner thanked the surveyor for the quick $1,800. Again, it might be that the surveyor made up with the extras charged for more work at a later date.
Subsequently, the homeowner called me and requested I prepare a building permit plan. I mentioned that he already had a surveyor, and asked didn’t he want to use that person? He said he did not. He was dissatisfied with that surveyor and wanted me to do the work. I declined.
To be clear, I spoke with the homeowner twice during the initial bid process, and he asked me why the survey he already had was not good enough for the architects. I kept explaining it was not what the architect wanted.
I did not give him the above review, which is my opinion and how I interpreted the meaning of the plan he had in hand. I did not tell him I thought he was ripped off. The architect already knew she had a bad product to work from, but also did not want to berate the work of the other professional.
Now, even with shooting two corners only, it still seems like the other fellow was working for wages. Why? In the end, all the work that is done in a year is done, because it had to be done. Land surveyors could have made twice the profit last year had they not given it away to thankless people.
A few other types of non-boundary and non-topographic survey plans are the “Map of Property,” “Exhibit Plan,” “Deed Plot,” “Rendering” and all plans that have notes written to avoid taking responsibility for the boundary, contours and existing features. How do you not take responsibility for the boundary? Use a note that says, “Boundary taken from…” or “Boundary shown in accordance with written records.” I have seen plans that call for boundary and topography taken from “a plan by Smith” where the note on the Smith plan says, “Boundary shown in accordance with deed of record.”
It is much cheaper to not spend time surveying the property, but aren’t we professional Land Surveyors?